what are they, and what do they do?
Putting it in your terms, ========================================================= Imagine Five great H2O balloon launchers with working Steam Punk six minute balloon release timers for a grand war event, But the war was just rescheduled and you must spend 7 hours changing cams in your timers to get ready for your water war, that was postponed because you took much too long. sorry =========================================================Now, you have a..... microcontroller IC ( integrated 8 pin black circuit ) timing the pull solenoid release that will launch of each water balloon.. ( Each micro needs two AA batteries+3V for operation two pins ) ( one pin to activate a tiny transistor that pulls a tiny solenoid release ) ( three more pins for taking instructions from a text file from your PC ).. This time when a war is just rescheduled, all you have to do is type a changed number to your timer text file. Then using one signal cable you send the new timer setting to each micro in a few seconds each. Ready for your rescheduled war in less then 5 minutes !!! A
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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microcontroller This kind of question you can better answer yourself with a quick search. Perhaps you should research the simple things yourself, you could then come back with better questions with narrower answers like... "Which microprocessor is better for a beginner, PIC or Atmel" or "can anybody recommend an easy to use micropressor development platform for a beginner, why is it ideal?"
A microcontroller (sometimes abbreviated µC, uC or MCU) is a small computer on a single integrated circuit containing a processor core, memory, and programmable input/outputMicrocontrollers are used in automatically controlled products and devices, such as automobile engine control systems, implantable medical devices, remote controls, office machines, appliances, power tools, toys and other embedded systems. (right off wikipedia :P)